Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tracy K. Smith, _Duende_

I WAS WEIGHING whether to read last year's Pulitzer winner for poetry, Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars (which I hope is named for the David Bowie song), when I noticed this on my shelves. I tend to buy more books than I read, unfortunately; I must have picked this up in 2007 or 2008, when it won the James Laughlin Award.  I read it over the last two or three days. Does it make me want to read Life on Mars?  Well...not so much.

The longer, more ambitious, more engagé poems do not work, in my view. "'Into the Moonless Night'." a 9-page poem in dramatic form about some of the victims of Joseph Kony, is perhaps more tonally sophisticated than Invisible Children, but only just. The book's opening poem, "History," a 10-page, multi-section poem about colonization and slavery, includes these lines:

Elsewhere and at the same time,
Some sentient scrap of first flame,

Of being ablaze, rages on,
Hissing air, coughing still more air,

Sighing rough sighs around the ideas
Of man, woman, snake, fruit.

We all know the story
Of that god.

Oh, dear.  Yes, I believe I have heard that story. Perhaps too often, really.  Why does this sort of thing win prizes while Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth does not?

The choices "flame," "ablaze," and "rages" make the whole passage sound a bit too much like high school journal poetry, really. I sense the same problem in a line from "Slow Burn," a poem that seems to be about outcasts of several kinds--"Minds flayed by visions no one can fathom." The idea that marginalized people are tormented by unutterable truths...I don't know...too romanticized, perhaps? And the image of a vision that peels the skin off people's minds while also being too deep to be measured...does that work?  Or did Smith just like the poetic pizzaz of "flayed" and "fathom"?

There are some good things, though.  There are some darkly intriguing poems about the end of a relationship in Part II.  In one of them, "One Man at a Time," one of the men is described so:

He carried himself like the leader
Of a small nation whose citizens
Whispered about his extravagant wife

And brewed their own beer
In basements hung with forbidden flags.

The ex- as a tinpot dictator is not new, but to let the image run on from there to imagine the domestic lives of his people--Smith gives the image room to take on a life of its own, relinquishes a bit of control, with happy results. If Life on Mars has more of this sort of thing....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides, _The Marriage Plot_

THE NOVEL'S TITLE refers to a common plot in the favorite 19th century novels of the novel's heroine, Madeleine Hanna: the courtship (with usually at least two leading contenders), the choice, the consequences of the choice. The heroine usually has to balance the claims of a Mr. Seems-Right-Maybe with the real Mr. Right: Wickham and Darcy, St. John and Rochester, Edgar and Heathcliff, Casaubon and Will Ladislaw, Grandcourt and Daniel Deronda, Lord Warburton and Gilbert Osmond.  Sometimes, a bad call is made, and we see how Isabel Archer, or Dorothea Brooke, or Gwendolen Harleth soldiers up in the wake of disaster.

It's the contention of one of Madeleine's professors at Brown that the Marriage Plot won't work in the context of the later 20th century, pre-marital sex and access to divorce having dramatically diminished the urgency with which the decision to marry is made.  Thus, Eugenides throws down the gauntlet at his own feet. Can one write a contemporary marriage-plot novel?

OK, we'll need a young, attractive, intelligent, but fallible heroine--check, Madeleine Hanna. We need two contenders--check, Leonard Bankhead (brilliant, good-hearted, bi-polar) and Mitchell Grammaticus (near-brilliant, clear-headed, a bit obsessive).  If we choose the George Eliot/Henry James model, the heroine will make a choice (check) that reveals itself as a mistake (check) and leads to a radical self-inventory and a chastened but still worthwhile future (check).

On the narrative level, though, The Marriage Plot does not at all feel like a 19th century novel. The long first section (about a third of the book) uses extensive and skillfully-deployed flashback, folding Madeleine's and Mitchell's whole college careers into an account of their graduation day ceremonies. The whole novel relies on style indirect libre and so is saturated in point of view in ways no 19th century novels save Flaubert's are. In the first section especially, Eugenides lays on lots of great Updikean period detail, what music college students of 1978-82 were listening to, how they talked, what movies they watched, what TV they grew up with, what books they read (one character is reading New French Feminisms, a madeleine that zapped me back immediately to 1982). As an updating of a classic novelistic archetype, I'd say it's a success. It's smart, funny, moving.

What's really interesting, though....

...is that Eugenides borrows several traits for Leonard Bankhead (as many reviewers noticed) from David Foster Wallace: big bear of a guy, genius, long hair, bandanna, mental health problems, medication dosage issues. Moreover, Mitchell Grammaticus has a few traits of Eugenides himself: their names are a metrical match, they both come from Detroit, both from Greek-American families.

So The Marriage Plot has a certain weird congruence with that awful (I thought) essay by Jonathan Franzen putatively about the Galapagos Islands but actually about Franzen's dis-ease with Wallace. Like Franzen, Eugenides has great sales, prestigious awards, offers from Hollywood, legions of loyal readers, but nothing like the adoration Wallace inspires.  Eugenides (and Franzen) may be wondering...why?

So, in The Marriage Plot, the Passionate Reader (Madeleine) falls in love, naturally, with Wallace. The Passionate Reader marries Wallace, the way passionate readers marry Joyce, or Pynchon, or Austen. But Wallace flames out; Wallace disappears.  Will the abandoned Passionate Reader then, at last, fall in love with Eugenides (or Franzen), who has courted and dreamed of her for so long?

To his credit, Eugenides knows she will not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Juliana Spahr, _Well Then There Now_

I PICK UP a Juliana Spahr with a certain eagerness and a certain trepidation.  Eagerness because she is, after all, a worthwhile writer, even arguably an important writer (I wonder exactly how she would go about dismantling the notion of "an important writer").  I even assigned one of her books for a class I am teaching this coming fall. Trepidation because she is almost certainly going to want me to think about things I would rather not have to think about.

Spahr is like that valuable-but-tiresome, tiresome-but-valuable friend who is always asking you to sign a petition or come to a demonstration or make a few phone calls or...your phone rings, you see the number, you don't wholly want to answer, knowing as you do that you will wind up with some duty or another, but you do answer, because if you don't, what have you become?

The acknowledgements in the front of the volume record not only where the poems and essays first appeared, but the street address at which they were written, including the zip code. The zip code?  Does Spahr imagine we want to write to whoever now lives at that address?

Probably not--but Spahr cares about names, cares about exactness, and furthermore cares how naming, marking, and identifying reveal the history and processes of power. "2955 Dole Street, Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822" marks the spot where the text "Dole Street"was written, first of all, but who is the Dole for which the street was named, and how did the place happen to be tagged by the U. S. Postal Service? Both questions are relevant to the text, it turns out.

 In the book itself, the titles of the texts are accompanied by maps showing the spot in the world where the text was written, including its latitude and longitude--not because the reader will be undertaking to sail there, presumably, but as reminders that the places Spahr is writing are parts of the history of western imperialism, which devised this system of keeping track of where it had gotten to, where to go next, and how to get home.

In an end note to the poem "Things of Each Possible Relation Hashing Against Each Other"(the process for which poem, as one can glimpse in its title, involved translation software), Spahr writes:

And I was also thinking at the time about how poets need to know the names of things and I didn't really know the names of lots of things that grew in Hawai'i.  I also didn't know where they came from. I knew that when I looked around anywhere on the islands that most of what I was seeing had come from somewhere else but I didn't know where or when. I was not yet seeing how the deeper history of contact was shaping the things I saw around me.

Some of the poems in Well Then There Now were composed during roughly the same span of years Spahr wrote about in her innovative memoir The Transformation (LLL January 14, 2010); that "deeper history of contact" she seeks to uncover begins with her finding herself in Hawai'i, but doesn't end there. Even when Spahr gets Wordsworthian, recalling her intimacy with the landscape of her childhood and the rivers that ran through it, that deeper history announces itself: she recalls too the factories that polluted those rivers, and the closings of the factories, and LBJ's War on Poverty and the possibilities it created for her to leave.

Spahr is the goad of conscience, the agenbite of inwit, but not just that.

For one thing, there's her formal inventiveness.  Adrienne Rich sometimes left the impression (e.g., "Blood, Bread, and Poetry") that she found concern for form a distraction in her pursuit of truth and authenticity, but for Spahr (with an assist from Stein) form always seems a way to get there.

For another, Spahr knows as well as you or I how beautiful and pleasurable the world is--the struggle is always to stay mindful even as we take in the beauty, experience the pleasure.  This is from the end  of "Sonnets," one of the texts about Hawai'i:

But because we were bunkered, the place was never ours, could never really be ours, because we were bunkered from what mattered, growing and flowing into, and because we could not begin to understand that this place was not ours until we grew and flowed into something other than what we were we continued to make things worse for this place of flowing and growing into even while some of us came to love it and let it grow in our hearts, flow in our own blood.

That morphing of self-accustaion into a confession of love--that's when you know you're always going to read the next book Spahr publishes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heather Christle, _What Is Amazing_

LLL's HIGH REGARD for the work of Heather Christle is already established (see July 9, 2010 and March 22, 2012) and her new collection What Is Amazing bumps it up a couple of notches.

The book is divided into three sections, which seem to me formally and thematically distinct.  The poems of the first section tend to longer lines and do almost entirely without punctuation (there are a few ampersands). In the second section, the lines are shorter, two or three beats, still largely punctuation-less, but the shorter lines quicken the rhythm a bit.  The last poem of the second part--the title poem, as it happens--switches to couplets, and periods and question marks start cropping up. Couplet poems dominate in part three, with one or the other line occasionally stair-stepped.

This was lovely.  The formal unity of The Trees, the Trees was enjoyable, but it's good to have some variety, too.

I do not think the poems were grouped strictly according to formal characteristics, though.  The first section's poems most frequently find themselves regarding the natural world (not exclusively, mind you), the second section's most frequently address other people (ditto), and in the third section the poems seem to be about...phenomena, we might say: people, plants, skies, air, celestial events, all at once.

This is a bit loony, but I almost think there's a Blakean tri-partedness going on as well.  The first group of poems have a songs-of-innocence quality, partly from a somewhat childlike use of repetition ("when X is small X is very very very / very small") and the breathless, unpunctuated momentum of the rhythm.  The speaker's attitude towards daffodils, dahlias, trees, moss, et al. is not all that naïve but is  quizzical ("but nature why don't you say something / it scares people when there's dead air") and at some points even like Maurice Sendak's Max: "As captain of the flowers I tell the flowers Look alive / and they listen [...]".

Part two--songs of experience.

and I come to you
with bark in my throat
and crime on my sleeve
and I come to you
full of my bones

I come to you, that is, liable to have rough, abrasive stuff come out of my mouth?  Capable of wishing and inflicting harm? Carrying the baggage we all carry by virtue of being born animals?

"And what if I love the wrong thing / You can't take it back / It can't be recycled / Not like paper / Not like this dark glass".

Or-- "But I still want to tell you a story / This one time I lived in the forest / It was magic I cried on my feet".  Things have happened to this speaker.  "Ten years later I was a woman."  Yep.

Northrop Frye writes of a "second innocence" in the visionary Blake, an experienced innocence, and something like that state we glimpse from the corner of our eye in the third section.  As with all visionary poetry, "What I can say represents what I cannot" (46).  We veer into the ecstatic ("what caterwauls, what loops the world // gives us, gives us eagles!"), into the obscure ("A person is layers of instants / covered in dirty blue feathers"), into sentences we want to write on the sky--

You are the ruined thing
and the world is what loves to repair you

--the second innocence of the repaired.

This is going on too long, but I would also like to praise Christle's ability to come up with tradition-invoking syntactical inversions in wholly surprising places and in wholly effective ways.

For instance, the last line of "An Activity": "and quiet like a prison yard when breaks the afternoon".

And the last two lines of "And Then We Clap Ourselves Together":

Oh sweet is the rain not arriving
and green is my overdrawn heart

And the "hum"--why all the humming (3, 31, 49)?

And oh, how I hope and pray that the Henri of "For Henri" is Bergson: "we live in the middle and so little in fact / seems to end."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Slavoj Zizek, _Violence_

ONE AFTERNOON IN 1980 or 1981, when I was in a graduate school, another graduate student and I were outside University Hall chatting with an assistant professor--or he  may have just become an associate.  The other student and I, no doubt hoping to impress, were batting around our ideas of Foucault.  The professor said, "You know, I actually haven't read Foucault."

This pulled us up short. We must have looked puzzled.

"Oh, I tried...what is the English version of Les Mots et Les Choses called?"

"The Order of Things."

"Right.  Well, I got about a hundred pages in and just thought, life's too short."

The other student and I exchanged a "dear god, what do we have here?" look and plunged on into our thoughts on Discipline and Punish and the first volume of History of Sexuality, hoping to convince the professor that he was missing out on something.  I remember resolving to never, once I was a professor, let myself get that lazy.

So thirty-odd years later, here I am not having read much in the crit-theory line in about a dozen years. My excuses? Well, the whole scene began to seem ossified, I suppose; once there is a Norton Anthology of something, the élan vital of whatever it is has likely leached away into the ether. Nothing seemed to have the skull-opening buzz of Gender Trouble or Epistemology of the Closet. And then, you know...life's too short.

Well, I am going to try to do better. I have now actually finished Zizek's Violence (which I started about fourteen months ago and put aside because life's too...).

I had read a couple of his books before, and this one made an impression similar to that of those two: memorable less for its argument than for its brilliant asides, illustrations, jokes, obiter dicta.  Zizek, I imagine, has more cool ideas while brushing his teeth than I will have in a lifetime.

He does have an argument here, of course, usefully summarized in the first paragraph of his epilogue.  The book responds to discussions of the "violence" of certain groups in much-covered episodes of 2005: the looting after Katrina, the riots in the Paris suburbs, the demonstrations against that Danish cartoonists's anti-Islamic cartoons. We see and condemn that violence, he argues, but fail to see the exclusions and coercions to which it responds, exclusions and coercions that are themselves a kind of violence even though we do not not know them and name them as such.

Fundamentalism and liberal tolerance tend to bring out the worst in each other, each bringing its own kind of violence to bear on the other, each blaming the other for its particular violence. Violence is probably inevitable, but there's violence and then there's violence. The final chapter on Benjamin and "Divine Violence" is Zizek at his scary best.

Again, though, it's the things he says along the way that stick with you.

"Science and religion have changed places: today, science provides the security religion once guaranteed. In a curious inversion, religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society.  It has become one of the sites of resistance."

Huh? But sure enough, as it was free scientific inquiry that undermined the ancien régime's claim to legitimacy in the 18th century, while the church stoutly supported that legitimacy, today technical expertise (military, diplomatic, psychological, as well as the natural sciences) is the authority that may not be questioned, while a few stubborn nuns or Quakers keep dissent alive.

Not that Z. has become a religio-phile.  His solution to the Israel-Palestine question is for everyone to just forget about their religion for a while.

Or this:

"The key moment of any theoretical--and indeed ethical, political, and, as Badiou demonstrated, even aesthetic--struggle is the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld.  The commonplace according to which we are all thoroughly grounded in a particular, contingent lifeworld, so that all universality is irreducibly coloured by and embedded in that lifeworld, needs to be turned round. The authentic moment of discovery, the breakthrough, occurs when a properly universal dimension explodes from within a particular context and becomes 'for-itself,' and is directly experienced as universal."

Page 152--emphasis Zizek's.  Again, huh?! What?! Back when I was reading a lot of this sort of thing, "universal" was a roundly scorned concept--ditto "timeless."  It was all about difference. Who is this Badiou?  Do I need to read him?  Life's too short! OK, obviously, my investigations need to continue.

What you have to love about Zizek are the examples he pulls out of nowhere that become the perfectly apposite illustration of a point. G. K. Chesterton, Alfonso Cuarón, Ben Hecht, Nip/Tuck, Rob Reiner, and Dorothy Parker rub shoulders in this book with John Rawls, Peter Sloterdijk, Walter Benjamin, and Alain Badiou, whoever he is.  And William Butler Yeats!  Quoted not just once, but twice.

Even the index is brilliant.  I wonder if he compiled it himself. Consider:

"Sloterdijk, Peter  22-3, 55, 59;
  denounces every global emancipatory
  project 194; proposes an alternative
  history of the West 186; Rage and 
  Time (Zorn und Zeit) 185, 188, 231n8,
  231n9; supplements philosophical
  categories with their opposites 186;
  on the true meaning of the events
  of 1990 185-6."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Nicholson Baker, _House of Holes_

I LOOKED UP "Nicholson Baker" on Wikipedia--one of the many topics on which Baker has written wittily, informatively, and thoughtfully--to find out how long it has been since The Fermata, his last work in smut-meistership before House of Holes. The Fermata, it turns out, was published in 1994--seventeen years, then, between that and this. My guess: the kids are grown up, off at college, and there has been an erotic renaissance at the Baker-Brentano household.

Vox was (arguably) realistic; The Fermata was, like Kafka's Metamorphosis, realistic once you granted its one impossible premise; House of Holes is pretty much all-out fantasy.  It's a kind of erotic utopia-slash-theme park that you get to, like Alice's Wonderland, through holes.  Just about anything goes, just about anything is possible, but there are fees.  Keeps out the riff-raff, no doubt.

The book's structure is fairly loose and episodic; there are some plot lines followed through the book, and we see most of the characters more than once, but the chapters could easily be read independently.  In each chapter, at least one fantasy is enacted, and at least one character has an orgasm.

Baker's eroto-topia is cheerful, even buoyant, well-scrubbed; its participants articulate, educated, polite, ready to have fun but considerate and unselfish. Everything is consensual, and while a certain amount of objectification is unavoidable, it's kept to a minimum, and pains are taken that no one's feelings get hurt.

How odd is it that this book appeared at virtually the same time that the shades-of-gray books were taking the eroticization of pain, humiliation, fear, and shame mainstream, and in doing so enjoying sales previously matched only by fictional teenage wizards and vampires?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Katherine Boo, _Behind the Beautiful Forevers_: Virtue Porn?

LATELY I WORRY about something I think of as "virtue porn," e.g., the film versions (not necessarily the original books, which I have not read) of Schindler's List and The Help. Both films encourage us to identify with a lonely, brave individual who is holding out against the imperatives of his or her community by in some way refusing to participate in the oppression of of a marginalized group. Such people deserve our admiration, certainly.  But in getting us to identify with Schindler and with Skeeter, the films open up room for us to flatter ourselves that we, too, would be lonely and brave and would resist, etc. Identifying with the brave, lonely resister becomes a kind of imaginary credit in our own moral accounts, as if we too had held out...although we, of course, ran none of the hazards of doing so.  All we did was watch the movie--but the movie gave us a kind of permission to imagine ourselves as having done a brave and virtuous thing.  Hence, "virtue porn."

To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is not virtue porn, I would say, because of the distance created by our having Scout's perspective. We as readers bear witness to Atticus Finch's bravery, but are not allowed to flatter ourselves that we are Atticus Finch.

Three Cups of Tea, I think, is virtue porn. The book invites us to identify with the author and the fine thing he is doing (or supposedly did--I guess there are some doubts in this case)--to share, vicariously, the moral credit accruing to the author's account.

I'm less sure about Dave Eggers's What is the What and Zeitoun, but here too I think there is a readerly temptation to feel virtuous just for having paid attention to the sufferings of others by reading the book. All due praise to Eggers himself for calling attention to these sufferings.  What bothers me is something I succumb to myself, the illusion that I am doing something virtuous just by reading the book and learning about how desperately hard some people's lives are.

So--is Katherine Boo's book about "life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity," to quote her subtitle, an instance of virtue porn?

What worries me most about the book is that she is not in it. She spent a lot of the time over several years with the people she writes about, but in describing their lives, she never mentions that they happen to have an acquaintance with a famous, prize-winning American writer, even though her presence must have made a difference in their lives.  These people have to be acutely alert to anything that looks like a threat or an opportunity, after all.  They live on the lip of annihilation; anything that might keep them from tumbling into it has to be seized upon. Yet in a book that gives us a novelistic intimacy with the subjects' thoughts, fears, and hopes, not one of them ever wonders, apparently, what it will mean to have an American write a book about them.  That can't have been true, can it?

But still--is the book as good as so many reviewers said it was? Boy, is it ever. Amazing.  Indelible. I don't know what having been written about will do to better the circumstances of any of these people, but Boo has made them immortal. As with Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, people will be reading about Abdul, Fatima, Sunil, and Manju for long after they themselves, Boo, and you and I are dead. It's that good.

And if I delude myself that just reading this book makes me a conscientious and caring person, that's my fault, not Boo's.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Toni Morrison, _Home_

IS THERE SOMETHING about aging novelists that draws them to ancient, elemental stories? The Old Man and the Sea, A Fable, East of Eden...more recently, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home, both of which invoke the Prodigal Son, or Roth's Nemesis. Finnegans Wake is (among other things) a compendium of ancient stories. So, what brings this impulse on? An attempt to get to the essence of life?  Flagging inspiration?

In Morrison's Home, Frank Money, a wounded warrior traumatized by his war experience (does it seem that every Morrison novel from Beloved on is about life on the other side of trauma?), learns his sister is in a terrible way, perhaps soon to die.  he has to get home.  Will he accept the quest, find his way home, save his sister, save himself in the process, and see his old home town with fresh eyes, detecting meaning and purpose where he had never seen them before?  ("And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.")

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Morrison obviously wants us to recognize the folk-tale architecture of her novel (or novella); one character is likened to a witch, another to a queen, another is named "Prince," and the Mengele-like doctor performing abominable "experiments" on Frank's sister will do for an evil wizard.

Home is not great Morrison--not enough surprises.  On the other hand, it's a breezy read, unlike Marilynne Robinson's relatively recent novel of the same name, which for me silted-up past the point of hope for progress about a hundred pages in.

Loved the narrator's interviews with Frank, though.  Morrison always likes to give her characters room to breathe (Jazz my favorite in this respect) and the Frank speaking in the interview-like chapters comes all the way alive.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Noelle Kocot, _The Bigger World_

I WAS NOT sure this project was going to work, but now it's done: seven volumes of poetry in seven days. Each one worth reading, too, different as they were.

My only previous work of Kocot that I was acquainted with before picking up The Bigger World is Poem for the End of the Millennium and Other Poems; this book is not quite as interesting as that one, though that's setting the bar rather high.

The title page of this volume bears the subtitle, "The Character Poems of Noelle Kocot."  Almost all of the poems are short narratives about (I presume) fictional characters, usually identified in the first few lines and often in the very first word: Horatia, Rick, Jelka, Seymour, a new character in each poem.

The poems inhabit a territory bordered on one side by Anne Sexton's Transformations, her sardonic, illusionless re-fashioning of the Brothers Grimm, and on the other side by Sheila Heti's Middle Stories, faux-naïf modern urban fairy tales. They sometimes venture into the surreal:

Seymour left the beach and traveled
Down a dirt road. He met a naked
Nun, and said, "Hey, what kind of
Dominoes are you slicing?"


The nun sings "a tortured love song about her husband, / Who died before she entered the convent," which got my attention, since Kocot's "Poem for the End of the Millennium" is about the death of her own husband.  Ann in "No One Would be Home" is also a widow, one who "finally let go of her / Dead husband."

She felt the need to tell the world,
But now, the world looked
So big, and Ann was small,
Like her name.

The source of the volume's title, perhaps? I can imagine that the world of a single person--a newly single person especially, perhaps--is bigger than the world of a couple. Couples supply a certain amount of each other's needs, perhaps, thus constituting in themselves a small world, but a single person has to get up and get out to find what she needs, so perforce has to belong to a bigger world. For Ann, the world has become more out-there, less in-here than it used to be:

She quieted herself, she
Quieted herself, and realized that
When she left, no one would be home.

The poem that struck me hardest was "Fugue"--I think the only poem in the volume in which the character is given no name, but is only "she."

     A wild loneliness
Descended like a flock
Of robins drained of their red.

[Now, there's a simile.  A loneliness at once familiar (robins being a very common bird) but new in a terrible way, its most distinctive and comforting feature mysteriously evaporated.]

Nothing seemed to matter
Anymore, not the past with
Its ax of granite nor the future
with its watery punctuation,

[the past as something we are "cut off" from? Separated from by something hard, unyielding, impenetrable?  The future as furnished with meant-to-be-reassuring signposts and directional markers, which turn out to be mobile, in flux, unreliable?]

But the moment, yes the moment,
She was forced into it like
So much dough between
The fingers.

[That kind of moment.  We've all had them.]

     "God bless us all,"
She said aloud to everyone and no one.
There is no other life.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Graham Foust, _A Mouth in California_

A MONTH IN California?--squint--no, it's "mouth." Not only Graham Foust's volume's title but also many of its poems involve a détournement of the expected phrase. "The Sun Also Fizzles." "To trip the forced majestic."

"Lyric Poetry after V-E Day" begins by winking at Adorno (or Kent Johnson?) and ends by winking at Walter Benjamin: "Pretend and two-dimensional, I am / and so have always been barbaric." Does "My Graham Foust" glance at Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson"? I'm going to say "yes," since the poem concludes, "He's nobody's autobiography. / Whose are you." And then the poem as a whole is poignantly hilarious take on the "ubi sunt" tradition.

In "After Margaret Atwood," the whole poem is a détournement.  Her famous "You Fit into Me"--

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye


I fit into you
like a peg into a hole

a tent peg
a donut hole.

Foust is a post-Ashbery poet; charge at one of his poems intent on finding the meaning, and you will find it passing veronica-like over you, and you will shortly be feeling the sword between your shoulder blades.  I suspect, nonetheless,  that the "I" in some of these poems is the voice of the poem we are reading. That is, the poem itself may be telling us it is "pretend and two-dimensional"--which it is--and thus open to Benjamin's famous adage about civilization's identity with barbarism.  "Poem Beside Itself" bids us keep in mind that "You've never had to kill me. / What takes place in me stays there. / These words are so clearly not / birds--they'll never be anywhere."  Poetry, as Auden wrote, makes nothing happen?

The poem speaking in "Poem with Fear, as Half-Awakened" seems to be the kind of poem one often encountered in the New Yorker or Poetry in the 1970s and 1980s:

     My song'll be a nail
and yours, a mouthful of mirror.
Seconds before we sing, I'll be reading
that wading pool's dismal little slaps
to mean trouble. You'll punch an animal,
any animal; I'll touch a small bell;
the moon'll turn everything lurid.

That's just about perfect.  The idea that a poem would use the way water moves in a wading pool to signify domestic discontent seems to evoke a whole era of American poetry.

On the other hand, Foust sometimes displays an old-fashioned kind of excellence, saying some true about the phenomenal world in an elegant, lapidary image. "Their Early Twenties"concludes: "They were the fruit they were trying to reach"--about as insightful an aphorism about early adulthood as you're going to find anywhere.  Or consider the short poem "A Heap of Language":

I wash the knives and wipe
the table. You come from the ocean
and dry yourself. Inside us, apologies inch
their way around.  Most of what we say will hardly matter.

That the words of the apology matter less than the mute, almost instinctual perception that both you and the other are dumbly maneuvering into a place where one can forgive and be forgiven--that is just plain true.

Foust's declared affinities in the volume (Spicer, Creeley, Merle Haggard, Mission of Burma) all do him credit.  Delighted to know, too, that he is scheduled to visit my town this fall.  Already looking forward to it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Anne Carson, _Nox_

I JUST NOTICED that Loads of Learned Lumber has now passed its fourth birthday; first post was May 21, 2008.  I am also now at just over 200 posts.  Not too shabby, eh? True, I have but a single follower--a follower, moreover, who I'm not even sure does much following (give me a call, Richard!); but a milestone's a milestone.

Anne Carson's Nox feels like something one shouldn't even be reading. It is a kind of collage-book she put together as part of the process (I would guess) of mourning her brother, who was estranged from her family--though "estranged" sounds as if there were some kind of blowup and sustained hostility, when what happened was that he took off for Europe in 1978 to avoid prison and simply neglected to stay in touch with his family, despite their persistent efforts. Five phone calls in twenty-two years, I think Carson says, plus postcards every year or so. I'm not even sure she laid eyes on him after 1978.  It's a book about the definitive absence of someone who was already for-all-intents-and-purposes absent, an intimate stranger.

Nox includes part of a page from what may have been his sole complete letter, a few of Carson's written-out memories of him, a few snapshots from their childhood, accounts of Carson's talks with his widow. There are also some reflections on the idea of truth in historical writing; Catullus's famous poem on the death of his brother; Latin-to-English dictionary entries for each of the words in Catullus's poem (an astonishing number of which are specified as participants in idioms involving "night" or "death"); and Carson's translation of the poem, which appears twice, the second time blurred beyond legibility.

Little of that seems utterly private and personal, so why did I feel as though I shouldn't be looking at it? Well, what the reader is actually handling is a painstaking photo-reproduction of the unique book Carson made, with visible evidence of staples, glue, bleedings-through of ink, gashed pages, all printed on one continuous piece of accordion-pleated paper stock.

Is it the evidence of Carson's hand that makes me uncomfortable reading the book? Yet I think that were I to come across the original book itself in a museum, say, nothing would feel strange; it would be powerful and moving.  But the facsimile...there is something unheimlich about it.  It feels like snooping, even though the book's publication must have been Carson's idea. Or like handling a dead person's clothes.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Laura Kasischke, _Space, in Chains_

I DON'T RECALL why I bought this; strangely enough, I bought it before it made several best-of-the-year lists, even though I had read none of her seven previous volumes. I must have been tipped, somehow, but by what or by whom?

The title poem reflects, I'm guessing the idea that the matter (atoms, particles) dispersed scattershot over the cosmos, drifting whither it will, that we call "space" is the very same matter that mysteriously congeals and accumulates into forms like planets, people, Tinker Toys, Elmer's Glue, and so on--the matter that adheres together into is also space, but confined, limited, bound--in chains, in short.

Why does matter compound into forms, into people, say, who see, speak, act, and remember, who generate new people, then disperse again?  Why do we come into being, and then cease to be?

This question--which takes many forms of its own--pervades the book, triggered perhaps by the deaths of the poet's parents and by watching your young son grow up.

It's all very Lucretian, really.  Which reminds me, I have to read that Greenblatt book. It's in one of the piles in my office, I'm almost sure.  What with Greenblatt's volume and this one, 2011 was a boom year for Lucretius, which probably come around less often than the Transit of Venus.

Kasischke is not what I would call an adventurous poet, but she does seem to like similes that hover tantalizingly just beyond the reach of ready comprehension.  Like this, of a grandmother glimpsed in a photo album found in a junk shop: "her face waits on every page / like an ax left behind on the moon."

Like an ax left behind on the moon? Hmm.  That is, like something we forgot in a place where we will have no opportunity to retrieve it? Like something that is useful in some places, but of no use at all where it is?  Like something that can conceivably do great harm, but is harmless where it is? Like something that does not exist (no axes having been left behind on the moon)?

"Neil, did you grab the ax before we got back in the capsule?"


Kasischke's fondness for the enigmatic only helps the book, though, I'd say.  No fewer than four poems are titled "Riddle," riddles being a bit like similes in which you guess what the tenor is based on the vehicle, inside-out similes shall we say, and all the more fun for being a bit oblique. A poem titled "Confession" is almost all simile:

Like the hospital room of the child after the parents have left
Like facing your prom dress in your nakedness

Like facing Oblivion in your prom dress

LIke black coffee spilled on the lilies
Like milk splashed onto the ashes

Is it the act of confession that is like these things?  Or is the poet confessing something via these similes? This sort of mystery kept me reading.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kathleen Ossip, _The Cold War_

Surprises of the week:

Echoes of Keats in Heaney: You might not agree that "Who is this coming to the ash-pit" is an echo of Keats's "Who are these coming to the sacrifice," but I think it is. "Apart: the very word is like a bell"  and "the heel of my once capable / Warm hand" are undeniable, though (both from Heaney's "Chanson d'Aventure").

An echo of Pound in Ariana Reines: a line near the end of "Permanent Water"--"A hole in myself at the thought of my lord you"--seems to me a pretty crafty revision of a line in Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter."

And now two echoes of Pound in today's volume! In the first poem, "Human Mind," a couple of lines--

Mania we drank, adrenaline we chewed, and for what?
A few women botched in teeth (unfluoridated).

--echo Pound's famous lines on WW I from "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly':

There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization [...].

And then a few pages on, in a poem about 1950s suburban life, Ossip rewrites the first line of the Cantos: "And then went down to the church."

I can't quite recall why I bought The Cold War--a favorable review from Stephen Burt, perhaps? If so, Stephen Burt is right once again: an excellent book. The more memorable poems here circulate around the texts and ideas of not-exactly-major-but-arguably-symptomatic intellectual figures from the late 1940s, the 1950s, and the early 1960s: Karl Menninger and Wilhelm Reich (psychology), Yvor Winters (literary criticism), Will and Ariel Durant (history), Vance Packard (sociology). 

Judging from her author photo, Ossip does not seem likely to have been born before 1970, but her portrait of the Truman-to-Kennedy era puts Mad Men to shame.  The energy she (like the series) might have put into the clothes, the furniture, and the cars instead goes into the psychological structure of that time, its  hysterical insistence on its truths, its forced, blinkered, doomed-to-disappointment optimism.  That "Document:," a post-9/11 poem, slots seamlessly into the middle of this volume indicates our own moment's illness is no new one.

All this and just about the most incisive account of that incredible personage Yvor WInters I have ever seen--and in a poem, no less.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ariana Reines, _Mercury_

AFTER TWO EXTRAORDINARY volumes, with two quite distinct approaches--The Cow used a variety of ingenious structures, Coeur de Lion sounded as candid and spontaneous as a journal--Ariana Reines's third volume, Mercury, is as crafty as her first and as swift an arrow to the heart as her second.  It's astonishing.

Might have been a mistake to read this in a day--it's 237 pages long--but it was not difficult to do so, given its headlong momentum. It's a long, deep rabbit hole, but there's no stopping once you have stumbled into it.

Five parts.

"Leaves" gathers 31 mainly short poems with separate titles, largely in the voice we already know (& love): "Writing beautifully made me feel like a fake / Which is part of feeling like a person. / I began to write in an ugly way / To subtract myself from womanhood and see only / A person in bas-relief with crucial parts and cartoon / Grief." Old themes resurface: the cow, "they seal the thing / Of cheese with a lion rampant." What is Nicolas Flamel doing here, though? Why the alchemical symbols, the allusions to mystical marriage, to the transmutation of elements?  The section's final poem, "Truth or Consequences," describes what we can only call a vision, though there is nothing gauzy or ethereal about it.  The poem ends with its speaker "not happy at all / But glad.  My secular life / If I ever had one is over."

"Save the World": Reines is dragged off, reluctantly, to the megaplex to see the film version of Watchmen, which is about saving the world, of course, and about saving the world from those who would save it. But Reines is a less concerned with the Dr. Manhattan-Ozymandias matchup than with the Silk Spectre and what women might conceivably have to do with saving the world, which leads...okay, let's pause to note that Reines gives Hollywood a bit of a scolding here, not least for putting Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to the Silk Spectre-Nite Owl sex scene, a decision that certainly calls for scolding...leads to her pondering the work of an unnamed poet who, at least in the eyes of some of her readers and her publicists, is saving the world, though Reines seems not quite to buy it.

"When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died": What does Reines's participation (real or fictional, I know not) in what sounds like the most abject kinds of pornography have to do with saving the world? I can't answer that, really, but love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement, as another poet fascinated by alchemy once put it, and if you have to love the world to want to save it, you have to love the whole world, not just the pretty parts.

"Mercury": Full on with the alchemical symbols now, presented, interpreted, re-interpreted, as prelude to a lyrical treatise--only oxymorons will swerve by this point--on self and gender that takes us to...

..."0" (or "O"? Is it letter or number? Both?), a heart-piercing account of Reines's mother.

Mercury is not quite like anything else I have ever read--reminiscent in some ways of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée, perhaps, but not really like that, either. It may not save the world, but it's an unforgettable book.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Seamus Heaney, _Human Chain_

I HAVE TO do something to whittle down the stack of unread poetry volumes around here, so here is my resolution: to read one a day this week.

I'm not sure why it took me eighteen months (more?) to get to this one. Heaney was my Favorite Living Poet from 1980, when I first read him, up until early 1990s; something of the gleam faded for me with Seeing Things and The Spirit Level, but I've still read each new volume.  And I liked District and Circle.  So why the wait?


Heaney is still Heaney in Human Chain, affably serious and seriously affable, a dab hand at translation (Colmcille this time), a subtle master of form (quite a few short-line poems here, not much seen since North), a man awake to the natural world:

Never, in later days,
Would fruit

So taste of earth.
There was slate

In the blackberries,
A slatey sap.

Heaney revisits old themes, but with a difference.  "The Conway Stewart" describes the pen that may have been the one that rested, "snug as a gun," in his hand in "Digging," and it is described as memorably as the the spade in that poem:

The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,

Guttery, snottery,
Letting it rest then at an angle
to ingest [...]

There is a visit to the underworld, á la Station Island, cast this time in the terms of Aeneas's visit to the underworld in Book Six of the Aeneid (but with terza rima recalling Dante), and, once again, tributes to his parents' taciturn love. Heaney can still conjure an uncanny image, as when describing the next-day shape of a banked fire:  "The cindery skull / Formed when its tarry / Coral cooled."

New notes?  A poem for a grandchild, and what seems to be a poem ("Chansons d'Aventure") about having a heart attack.  Did Heaney have a heart attack? Mortality has never been far from the surface in Heaney's poetry, but frequently in Human Chain he seems particularly conscious of his own. The volume's title poem is about passing things along, as in a bucket brigade, or the heaving of bags of grain, as Heaney recalls, especially the blessed relief of letting go of the burden:

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave--

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Alex Ross, _The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century_

I READ THE first part of this--200 pages, roughly--back in 2008. I put the book aside, meaning to get back to it as soon as possible since I was getting a lot out of it, and then, somehow, four years went by. The daughter who graduated from high school about the time I interrupted my reading of The Rest Is Noise has just graduated from college. Who knows where the time goes, as Sandy Denny memorably put it. But I picked Ross's book up again a week ago and have just finished.

Ross is music critic for the New Yorker, and the book is a history of (what I guess we will have to call) classical music composition in the 20th century, starting with Mahler, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, and proceeding through Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and others to Steve Reich and John Adams.

The Rest Is Noise is written for a non-specialist audience--Ross uses no musical notation anywhere in the book, and when he throws out a term like "tritone" or "passacaglia" he always defines it.  The book is light on (though not devoid of) original research, but skillfully synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. I am guessing that musicologists would have the same kind of (perhaps not envy-free) misgivings and flare-ups  about Ross that psychologists have about Malcolm Gladwell, at the rate of perhaps 1.7 carps per page.

As for me, though--I thought it was an excellent book, and I learned a lot.  I was broadly familiar with these composers before reading it (I was pleased to see that of the thirty CDs Ross recommends in a list at the end of the book, I already had fourteen), but Ross's history has a narrative arc with enough conflict and characters for several novels, not to mention a few tablespoons of gossip to keep things lively. He brings old controversies to life, and shows you what was at stake in, for instance, how one felt about serialism. He is illuminating on the intersection of music and global politics in the 1930s (the Nazis and Wagner, Copland and the Popular Front, Shostakovich and Stalin) and during the Cold War (the USA and the USSR were competing not only in aerospace and in armaments, but over who had the most vibrant culture).

Musicologist or no, Ross always made me want to listen to familiar pieces again and to seek out the ones he wrote about that I had not yet heard.

Contemporary musical composition, like contemporary poetry, is always in danger of seeming as though its practitioners are its only audience, always liable to the charge of being elitist, closed-off, irrelevant.  I never thought that about contemporary poetry, and thanks to Ross, I will never think it again about contemporary classical music. It's here, it's alive, it's making a difference, it counts.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mario Vargas Llosa, _Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter_

I HAD READ a pair of Vargas Llosa novels before this one--The War of the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat--so I don't know why it took me so long to get to this one, which I remember lots and lots of people reading in the 1980s. (In fact, my copy is a Quality Paperback Book Club edition--whatever happened to them?--which suggests how widely read this novel was.)

The story is set in Lima, Peru, in the 1950s. The narrator is an aspiring writer with the same name as the author; he is trying to finish a law degree while working on the staff of a radio station, but spends most of his time writing and rewriting short stories that he cannot get published. He becomes fascinated by Pedro Camacho, the author of a proliferating number of radio serials that have made their station Lima's most popular--this is the scriptwriter.The recently-divorced sister of the wife of one of Mario's uncles arrives in town, and Mario has the task of being her escort to the movies, a task he resents until he begins to be fascinated by her as well, even though she is twelve years older than he--this is Aunt Julia.

The title led me to expect that Pedro and Julia would meet, fall in love, etc. They do meet, but it is Mario who falls in love with Julia and persuades her to marry him, over the opposition of their whole family, especially his old-school cut-you-off-without-a-penny patriarch of a father. We find out in the final chapter they do not live happily ever after, exactly--the marriage lasts eight years-- but love does conquer convention and family opposition, which makes for a classic comedy ending, at least.

Apparently Vargas Llosa himself married an older female relative; according to Wikipedia, "he married Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle's sister-in-law, in 1955 at the age of 19; she was 10 years older." The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is not its possible autobiographical connections, but its attention to storytelling: the urge to tell them, the costs of telling them, our intense emotional engagement with them even though we know they are illusions.

We have not only the big-arc story of Mario's and Julia's relationship, but also numerous micro-examples such as the lies Mario tells to persuade various officials that he is of age to marry, and in between the chapters on Mario and Julia we have the stories told by Pedro Camacho's scripts, which start blending into a bizarre recursive mélange as he gradually forgets which character belongs to which story line. 

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter kept reminding me of Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (which was published two years later) in being a love story interleaved with a compendium of many other stories of many different kinds.  Both novels let us revel in our fascination with stories, while also considering how our stories create us, sometimes betray us, are in any case an inextricable element of our being in the world.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Johnson, _Radi Os_

READING REDDY'S VOYAGER inspired me to re-read t his, which I enjoyed anew, with even greater relish. Johnson's erasure poem not only engages Milton, but also engages Blake's reading of Milton by finding in the first four books of Paradise Lost the drama of the emergence of consciousness--which in turn seems to draw this poem into the orbit of Johnson's own magnificent ARK.